Iana Murray


Illustration by Jen Yook

Shadows and Fog: a conversation with Park Chan-wook

The incomparable South Korean filmmaker reflects on his dreamy neo-noir, Decision to Leave.

Desire is the double-edged panacea for loneliness in the cinema of Korean director Park Chan-wook. It’s seen in Song Kang-ho’s vampire preacher in 2010’s Thirst and the fanciful, battery-eating patients/lovers of 2005’s I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK. It’s also in his new film, Decision to Leave, a measured and masterful romance cut from the same emotionally charged and desire-obsessed cloth as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo – the very film that inspired Park to pick up the camera.

Since breaking out internationally with his lauded Vengeance trilogy, Park’s distinctive brand of precision-tooled filmmaking has been marked by its bloody violence and jet black (sometimes very sick) humour. There’s also his love for puzzle-box plotlines that tell of the eternally wronged who are then driven by their own righteous code for some kind of exoneration or cryptic answer.

Decision to Leave is less explosive when contextualised by that metric, but it is no less affecting or forceful than the director’s previous works. Entrenched in coded exchanges, the film is a foggy illusion that forces the viewer to decipher its meaning. That requirement for a sharp eye is only fitting for a story about a detective, Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), who is investigating – and subsequently falling for – his emotionally inscrutable suspect, Seo-rae (Tang Wei).

The romances in his films tend to burn slowly. Before pickpocket Sook-hee and Lady Hideko entangle in a fervid display of love and lust in The Handmaiden, their mutual interest is communicated through intensely personal exchanges. Care is captured in sensual close-up, as Sook-hee grinds down Hideko’s irritating tooth and sweetens the procedure with a lollipop. In Decision to Leave, Hae-joon and Seo-rae’s mutable relationship is entrapped within professional boundaries. Their moments of contact by proxy – the dance-like rhythm they fall into as they pack away sushi boxes, or the application of lip balm – are as intimate as any love language. For Park, it’s all in the details.

LWLies: Compared to your previous films, it feels like Decision to Leave moves at a different pace. What inspired that?

Park: It wasn’t like I planned everything in advance. It wasn’t like I decided on the pace or the style of my next film, and then came up with the story. It’s the other way around. I wrote the story first, and then it just naturally comes to me in terms of the style, the rhythm and the pace. That’s just how that happened. As you know, this story is not told through exhibitory expressions. These emotions that are felt by the two protagonists are not verbally expressed.

Sometimes the emotions are hidden. They express their emotions in a different way. They kind of beat around the bush. They sometimes say it in the complete opposite way, so it’s very difficult for us to really know what is going on inside their heart. And for this reason, the audience will have to pay very good attention to all the small details of their facial expressions and their gestures. And they will have to listen very carefully to what they say and how they use those words in order to really find out what is going on underneath everything. Because of that, I think this kind of rhythm and the pacing kind of came along in a very natural way.

If you look really closely at the film, you can tell by how it’s edited that no frame was wasted. It’s almost like this machine or clockwork that is so tightly managed. It’s very sharp. That was the type of editing that I really wanted to realise with this film. So, if you try to look very closely, then you will see
there are many jump cuts too.

Jumping off what you said about the small details, you do have to home in on these subtle but charged moments between the characters. How did you approach creating intimacy in those chaste exchanges?

If you look at the situations these two protagonists are in – this married man who is the detective and this woman who is being investigated as a possible suspect, and things become more complicated from there – they can only express their love for each other in a very subtle and restrained way. I had this principle to begin with that all the expressions should be restrained so you can find it in the way those actors perform, the music and the camera. In the first half of the movie, the camera movement is very restrained, and so everything had to follow that principle of showing restraint.

What effect did you want to create with that principle of restraint?

I wanted the audience to intensely concentrate on every little thing that they see and hear during this film, so that if any small things happen, that would be a big event that would have an emotional impact on the audience. For example, the man says to the woman to throw the cell phone into the ocean. That sentence is kind of dry, it doesn’t carry any strong emotion in and of itself. But that is the most powerful expression that the man can say to this woman. It’s a confession, a very strong one. It’s even stronger than saying “I love you” 100 times. In the second half of the film, Seo-rae says to him, “The phone that you found at the bottom of the ocean, you have to throw it back even deeper into the ocean. So, it’s like she’s giving the love back to him, but now this time she’s saying, “I love you even more than you love me.”

Decision to Leave feels like a classic genre film in terms of how it pulls from police procedurals and melodrama, but it’s also elevated. How do you innovate within the parameters of genre?

To be honest with you, I tried not to label the film as a film noir. I didn’t want it to be labelled that way. I’m not saying that kind of labelling or definition is wrong. But once that label is on this film, that means this strong woman character automatically becomes a femme fatale. During the first half of the movie, yes, I understand that the woman can come across as a femme fatale, and the first half of my movie can be seen to have those traditional film noir elements in it. But I intentionally mislead the audience to see the first half of the film that way. In the second half, it starts to break away from those genre conventions. There’s a great line that Seo-rae says that really summarises what I mean. She says in Chinese, “When you said you love me, my love ended, and when your love ended, my love started.” I think that’s a great line because that means the noir genre film has come to an end, and now a new type of melodrama and romantic film starts. That’s what we can translate from that Chinese line.

That’s interesting because several critics have called Seo-rae a femme fatale. I’m curious about your perspective on that archetype. Do you think it’s outdated or has a place today?

It depends on what kind of story you want to tell. If a writer or director wants to bring to life this classic femme fatale character and express her on that medium then, why not? And it is possible that in our real world, or the world that’s created by the writer and the director, that type of woman can exist. However, in my opinion that is not so interesting. To me, in the modern world that we’re living, this formula of the femme fatale seducing the man into his demise is not so interesting. The juxtaposition between the man and the woman, the subversion of the roles in that formula would be a lot more refreshing.

What was the decision behind casting Tang Wei as Seo-rae?

We already had Tang Wei in mind when we were creating that character. What I mean by that is that we did not define our Seo-rae to be a Chinese woman living in Korea from the very beginning. After watching Lust, Caution, my co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong and I always wanted to work with her, but then in my previous films, we did not create a Chinese woman character, so we just didn’t have that opportunity to offer to her. But this time around we started from a clean slate, just one white page, so that’s how it happened. After we decided to have Tang Wei come on board, we thought, okay, now what can she do? She can speak Chinese and her Korean won’t be that good, so she will be the Chinese woman whose Korean is not that good.

What did she bring to the character?

I would say dignity. This character is not well off. She has this occupation that is not so well-respected, not welleducated. After all, she is a murderer, and she is madly in love with someone and her love is bigger than the man’s love for her. But then, despite all of this, because it was Tang Wei who played the role, this character was never low in any way. This character was not depicted as a pathetic person, so it was really all thanks to Tang Wei.

Your films are quite well-known for their dark humour, and that’s still present in this film but it’s perhaps more subdued. What role does humour play in your work?

It’s true that the type of humour in this film is different. I would say that’s because in my previous films, the humour was presented in a situation where there’s violence, which means rage or fear. Those kinds of emotions are linked to what makes the situation, or what follows right after, funny. This time around, too, there is some humour like that, but I think different attempts were made because this time humour is linked to this feeling of love. Perhaps this time, the audience will feel their heart warming after seeing these funny scenes.

“To be honest with you, I tried not to label the film as a film noir. I didn’t want it to be labelled that way.”

Busan is also really central to the story. What was it about the city that made it well-suited as the setting?

I like Busan, and actually, I have shot many of my films in Busan even though that location was not so exposed. But this time around, Busan is at the core of the story. It’s a very important backdrop. There’s this Busan-ness that you can feel throughout this film, and Busan is a very nice city to make a film in. It’s a big city, it has diverse dimensions to it. It has very different faces, because it’s got the mountains and also the ocean. And as you know, Hae-joon is from Seoul, but he loves the ocean so much that he even chose to go serve in the Navy. All the Korean men have to do mandatory military service, so he chose the Navy because he loves the ocean. It was fully intended that he would be doing the detective job in Busan.

If we can divide people into ocean species and mountain species, Hae-joon is definitely ocean species, but Ki Do-soo, the first husband of Seo-rae, is definitely mountain species. And that was why it was his fate to die while climbing the mountain. Also, in order for that incident to be allocated to Hae-joon, it had to happen in Busan, where there are mountains and the ocean. Busan is just a great city, because it has all these fascinating facets.

That idea of the mountain species and ocean species is really interesting to me, because one of the images that stood out to me was the wallpaper in Seo-rae’s house. You can’t really tell if it’s supposed to be an illustration of mountains or waves. Perhaps what you’re implying is that it symbolises both.

You’re absolutely right. That apartment is inhabited by Seo-rae and Ki Do-soo, so that whole design of the wallpaper was fully intended. At one glance, it kind of looks like a mountain range. At another glance, it looks like waves in the ocean. Also, the colour is a kind of bluish green, and there’s a line that says the colour sometimes looks blue and sometimes looks green. It’s a very ambiguous colour that will throw you off and will puzzle you. That concept is also connected to the mist, because Ipo always has mist and fog. So that means because of the fog, things will be very hazy. You won’t be able to really distinguish the objects, which also translates to the emotional state of the characters, and how we won’t be able to accurately pinpoint what emotion is being felt. It’s very much a hazy and puzzling feeling.

Published 14 Oct 2022

Tags: Park Chan-wook

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